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Iraq: Baghdad Goes On Diplomatic Offensive Amid U.S. Warnings About Arms Monitors

Iraq has made a new offer to Kuwait to resolve outstanding issues from the Gulf War. Many analysts see the initiative as yet another phase in Baghdad's continuing drive to build Arab public opinion against United Nations sanctions.

Prague, 30 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As Washington threatens to punish Iraq if it does not readmit weapons inspectors, Baghdad has responded by launching a diplomatic offensive to build regional popular support against the UN sanctions regime.

The offensive has multiple fronts and is aimed at several different audiences.

First, and closest to home, Baghdad has made new overtures to Kuwait to resolve outstanding differences left over from Iraq's 1990 occupation of the emirate and the ensuing Gulf War.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein said over the weekend that he invites Kuwaiti officials to make surprise visits to Iraq's jails and even palaces to look for prisoners of war that Kuwait says are still being held by Baghdad. Kuwait says Iraq is keeping more than 600 people, 90 percent of them Kuwaiti, who were abducted when Iraqi troops were forced out of the emirate by a U.S.-led international coalition in 1991.

Iraqi state television quoted Saddam as saying, "The Kuwaitis and the Saudis [can] make a surprise visit to Baghdad...and say, 'We have specified places according to information from American intelligence...that we would like to see.'"

At the same time, Iraq said it would allow a UN human rights investigator, Andreas Mavrommatis of Cyprus, to visit for the first time in a decade.

Analysts say the invitation to Kuwait aims to convince public opinion in the Gulf that Baghdad is doing all it can to improve relations with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia -- the two states in the region that most support keeping UN sanctions in place. The initiative comes as Baghdad in recent years has re-established diplomatic and trade ties with four other Arab Gulf states -- Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Qatar, in particular, has increasingly called for an international dialogue with Iraq aimed at lifting the sanctions.

So far, Iraq's offer has received little response from Kuwait City or Riyadh, both of which have no diplomatic relations with Baghdad. Those two states have previously said that before sanctions can be removed, Saddam must reassure his neighbors about their security and address the issue of the missing Kuwaitis. They also have said Baghdad must allow UN weapons inspectors to return and verify Iraq has no more weapons of mass destruction.

Qinan Al-Gandi, chief editor of the Saudi daily "Al-Watan," told Radio Free Iraq correspondent Sami Shoresh recently that he sees little prospect that Kuwaiti and Saudi officials will view Iraq's new initiative as being in good faith. Instead, he says, both governments are likely to view the overture as being motivated more by Baghdad's own desire to build Arab popular support against any new U.S. military strikes than as a genuine response to their concerns.

"[Baghdad's motivation] is a problem because this matter appears to be intended to avoid a U.S. strike, and that raises the mistrust felt by the Gulf states toward Iraq. In fact, this matter makes the Gulf states believe that the Iraqi regime just wants to solve the problem temporarily and, when the storm passes, it will return to its old positions and the old problems."

Al-Gandi also said Kuwait does not trust Baghdad sufficiently to try to solve the missing-persons issue bilaterally. Instead, Kuwaiti officials want the dispute solved in the UN Security Council.

"I think the demand of the Kuwaitis is just and right, because the Kuwaitis have no trust in the good intentions of the Iraqi regime toward solving this problem (bilaterally). There is a long experience with Iraq on this issue. Therefore, the Kuwaitis want this problem to be solved in the Security Council and not elsewhere."

Still, the Saudi and Kuwaiti reluctance to accept Baghdad's offer is unlikely to derail Iraq's new diplomatic offensive. Analysts believe the offer is part of a new sanctions initiative that the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Mussa, received from Saddam while visiting Baghdad 10 days ago. Mussa, who has not divulged details of the initiative, has said he will convey it to Arab leaders and the UN. Arab leaders are due to meet in Beirut for a two-day annual Arab League summit beginning on 25 March.

Simultaneously with its offer to Kuwait, Baghdad has launched a new initiative to improve ties with Iran. There, too, one of the outstanding issues between the two sides -- who fought an eight-year war that ended in 1988 -- is prisoners of war (POWs).

Iraq's Foreign Minister Naji Sabri visited Tehran over the weekend to meet with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and other top officials. After the meetings, Tehran and Baghdad vowed to ease tensions and to try to resolve all outstanding humanitarian issues between them. And Sabri said Iran would resume direct flights to Baghdad after a break of more than 20 years.

Sabri's visit comes on the heels of Iran's recent release of 697 Iraq soldiers and Iraq's release of 50 Iranian prisoners. Iraq's release of the Iranians surprised many observers because Baghdad had said for years that it held just one remaining Iranian POW, a pilot, whom it said it was keeping as evidence of Iraq's claim that Tehran began their war. Tehran says Iraq still holds 2,806 of its prisoners, while Baghdad says Iran still holds several tens of thousands of its citizens.

Analysts say Iraq's freeing of the 50 Iranians may be partly intended to reinforce any popular perception in the Gulf area that Baghdad is now serious about resolving tensions with its neighbors. That, in turn, would help build sentiment in the Arab world and elsewhere that it is Gulf governments, particularly Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, that are responsible for the Iraq crisis -- not Baghdad.

Such popular sentiment has already seen numerous organizations -- and some governments -- ignore previous UN restrictions on flying to Iraq. The flights, beginning two years ago, have challenged the UN's ability to monitor Iraqi imports. Washington and London also are concerned by large-scale regional smuggling of Iraqi oil, which provides Baghdad with substantial revenue outside of the UN's supervision.

Both of those problems have helped fuel the U.S. and British "smart sanctions" proposal, which is currently on hold at the UN. Discussion of smart sanctions was postponed until this summer after the U.S. and Russia -- which opposes the proposal -- agreed last year to conclude talks on any changes to the sanctions regime by 1 June.

The UN placed sanctions on Iraq following Baghdad's occupation of Kuwait in 1990, with their lifting tied to Baghdad's proving it has no more weapons of mass destruction. The sanctions regime is designed to prevent the Iraqi government from procuring items of military use but allows it to use its oil revenues to purchase humanitarian goods.

As Baghdad launches its latest diplomatic offensive, tensions between Baghdad and Washington have escalated in recent weeks. U.S. warplanes struck Iraqi air defenses three times last week in response to challenges to no-fly-zone patrols -- resuming a pattern of tit-for-tat attacks that had slacked off in recent months.

U.S. President George W. Bush has warned Baghdad it will face consequences if UN inspectors -- who left Iraq three years ago -- are not allowed to return. The U.S. president described Iraq -- along with Iran and North Korea -- as an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union speech yesterday. Such warnings have triggered U.S. press speculation that Washington could next target Iraq in its war on terrorism, though U.S. officials have not said publicly they will do so.